vision 2020

We May Not Know Who Wins the Presidency on Election Day

A Florida county election official examines a ballot in 2000, with interested observer John Bolton looking on. Photo: Greg Lovett/AFP via Getty Images

One of the aspects of voting by mail that has led to fallacious Republican claims of voter fraud is that it typically takes a while to count late-arriving ballots — if only because they must be opened individually and signatures matched against registration files — which in turn slows down the tabulation and reporting of results. The process can be even slower if mail ballots postmarked by Election Day are counted (e.g., in California and Washington) or if voting-by-mail spikes overwhelm election officials ill-prepared to process a lot of mail ballots.

If you tend to think there is a divine right to know election results a few hours after in-person polls close, then slow counts can seem (or can be falsely described as) sinister; recall the suggestions by House Republican leaders in 2018 that early Election Night GOP leads in several California districts that were reversed by later mail ballots must have involved skullduggery. Recognizing that the 2020 presidential election is likely to be very close, you can easily imagine slow counts in November arousing all sorts of conspiracy theories and wild partisan charges — particularly in the GOP, where there is a deep and abiding faith in the existence of widespread voter fraud, as invisible to the five senses as angels and demons. You can certainly envision the president of the United States freaking out about illegal voting and other phantasmagoria if it looks like late mail ballots might eject him from the White House. It could all make Florida 2000 seem calm and benign by contrast.

The push for expanded voting by mail in response to the rational voter fear of getting sick and dying via in-person voting (assuming the coronavirus pandemic has continued, is renewed, or has only recently subsided by November) could increase the odds of a slow count and delayed general-election results. But it’s important to understand that most of the states likely to decide the presidential election are already heavy voting-by-mail states. The Washington Examiner has published a useful roundup of battleground state rules:

The six most important swing states for the Electoral College map — Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Arizona, Florida, and North Carolina — all allow voters to request mail-in or absentee ballots for any reason. Large percentages of voters in Florida and Arizona, where voters can opt to receive ballots by mail automatically, have voted absentee for the last decade.

New laws enacted in the last two years in Pennsylvania and Michigan mean that more people in swing states will have access to mail-in ballots than in 2016.

Arizona has permanent voting-by-mail registration, which provides for the automatic mailing of ballots to voters so long as they keep voting. Florida allows you to sign up as a voter by mail for four-year increments. None of the battleground states listed above — and you can add the potential battlegrounds of Georgia and Ohio — requires an excuse for voting by mail. And in the one battleground state that does, New Hampshire, state officials have made it clear that they will accept mail ballots this year, on the grounds that the pandemic has created a “disability” for voters.

None of these battleground states allow mail ballots received after Election Day to count, so you won’t likely have California-style weeks-long delays in getting most of the votes counted. But a number of them may well experience voting by mail at unprecedented levels, delaying results by many hours or perhaps days. And in states unaccustomed to heavy remote voting, varying local standards on signature authentication or damaged ballot processing could — and probably will, in the case of close races — lead to frantic litigation.

To see what the first week in November might be like, you need only look back at 2018, where this was the situation shortly after Election Day, as reported by USA Today:

Six days after polls closed in the 2018 midterm elections, some major races remain undecided and legal battles have begun as anxious politicians express concern about the delay in the final results. 

Election workers are still counting ballots in Arizona’s Senate race, in which Democrat Kyrsten Sinema holds a narrow lead over Republican Martha McSally. In Florida, a recount is underway in both the governor’s and Senate races. In Georgia, Democrat Stacey Abrams refuses to concede, though her Republican opponent, Brian Kemp, holds a 60,000-vote lead and claimed victory. 

Extrapolate this situation to the highest-stakes presidential election in living memory, with more voting by mail, possibly understaffed polls and election offices, and Donald Trump on television shrieking about Radical Democrats letting Mexican Murderers vote by the millions.

Aside from taking every possible step to make this November’s election administration fair and competent in as many states as possible, we should all batten down the hatches for a wild ride.

We May Not Know Who Wins the Presidency on Election Day